Speaking at the Men's Shed Association National Conference

Thanks very much, great to be here. Can I start by acknowledging country.

I thank their Elders past and present for custodianship of land and extend that acknowledgement and respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are with us today.


To David Helmers and the team from the Men’s Shed Movement, it’s great to be with you and thanks for the invitation. To Cabots, who are sponsoring this fantastic event and to the new Newcastle Council and Madam Lord Mayor - thank you for the support you are giving to this conference and this great movement.           

I have been disappointed that I wasn’t here to hear Barry Golding speak this morning.

I’ve read his book, The Company of Men, which is a fantastic documentary of the history of the Men's Shed Movement not only in Australia but around the world. I’m sure that I would have got some additional insights if I had been available to hear him talk this morning.          

Look, it’s not easy to get leave from Parliament when Parliament is sitting and the bells went off a couple of minutes ago and Parliament would have kicked off.

When I went to Bill Shorten and explained to him that the Men's Shed movement was having their annual conference in Newcastle, the home of the Men's Shed Movement, he was keen to have a representative come along.

Labor gets the importance of men’s health policy and gets the importance of the Men's Shed movement within that policy.

Indeed, when we launched Australia’s first national men’s health policy, we chose a Men’s Shed not far from here to be the place where we did that.

When we put in place the initial investment of over $17 million towards men’s health policy, and a clear strategy for the country in terms of men’s health, we knew that having preventative health measures was essential to our men’s health policy.

I very much see the Men's Shed movement as a part of that strategy.

I want to tell a little bit about my story and why I feel so attached to the work that you guys do in the Men's Shed movement.

I grew up in the Illawarra. I left school in 1983, a year before the main employer in the town, BHP as it then was, laid off half its workforce. That’s a big thing for any region of course, but half its workforce was about 13,000 people.

People of my generation, you either went to work in the mines or the still works or went to university to learn how to be an engineer or a metallurgist to go and work in the mines or the still works.

It was a big part of your future plan. When you lay off 13,000 workers it does affect just about every family in the district, including the men who worked in the steelworks and the coal mines which were also going through a downturn at the time.

It affected the aspirations of another couple of generations of blokes who thought that that was where their future would lie.

For literally years thereafter, you could see the impact that it had on the town.

This was the mid-1980s. Blokes whose daily routine had been dictated by getting up on the alarm to go and work when their shift was starting, doing their eight or 10 hours and knocking off and doing that five to seven times a week.

Their whole daily routine came to an end. For many of them, that was a routine that they could not fill with anything else.

They still gather together sometimes in public places, in the malls or the shopping centres. You know those chess games, those big outdoor chess games? They never were so popular as they were in the late 1980s in the Illawarra.

Sometimes they gathered in places that weren’t always so healthy for them - in the bars, the clubs, the pubs around the district.

We saw alcoholism go up, we saw substance abuse go up. We saw marriage breakdowns go up along with stress, anxiety, depression.

All the things that you would expect when the thing that defined as you as a person were no longer there.

It took literally a generation for that to wash through the district. We didn’t have Men’s Sheds back then and it’s a pity.

Because if we did, there would have been a place for people to go to talk about the things that they were dealing with privately. To have a place for them to go to talk about the things that they would deal with amongst peers.

Not amongst doctors or other people whose job it was to deal with that stuff, but alongside blokes who were going through the same sort of thing.

They could talk to them as peers. Maybe every now and then, invite somebody new along to give them a hand.

It would have been an environment in which they could talk amongst themselves, provide peer support to get through the struggle that they were going through.

I’m very close to the Men’s Sheds throughout my district; I’ve visited just about every one of them.

Something that really struck a note when I was reading Barry Golding’s book, there was a quote in there that really resonated.

It’s not about making stuff, it’s about making better blokes. That is about 90 per cent true from what I can say about the Men’s Sheds in my district in the Illawarra.

Because they actually do make stuff as well and it’s very useful. I actually think that’s a great part of the sheds down my way.

At the caravan park at Windang the Men’s Shed has set itself up for not only to men from the area but also mostly permanent residents who live in that van park.

Because they’ve also set themselves up with a mission to ensure that they provide repairs to all the caravans for a lot of the low income people from throughout the district.

Down in Albion Park, they’ve got a push bike recycling program going on where you can bring your old push bikes in.

They recycle them and they give them out to low income families throughout the district at the same time as they are gathering together and having those important conversations.

They are doing something important, something needed, something useful.

When preparing for this speech I read through the list of horrors about men’s health here. If I read through them, or maybe you’ve already had this. It would really send you into despair.

I think we know the problems that we face and the disparities that are built upon the class and Indigenous and non-Indigenous disparities in Australia.

You look at heart disease. 126 men to every 100 women are dying because of heart disease. You look at lung cancer, 155 men to every 100 women. You look at respiratory disease, 130 men for every 100 females. Colon cancer, 123 to 100.

The list goes on, and as the Professor was talking about earlier, that horrible statistic around suicide.

Of the 2200 suicides that occur every year, which by the way is greater than our national road toll, 80 per cent of those are men.

We’ve got to be able to do better than this. I see the Men's Shed movement as a critical piece of the infrastructure that is in place, an organic infrastructure that is in place which is going to help us to innovate.

Labor last week put in place a target of halving the number of suicides that occur within this country. We didn’t pluck that number out of thin air, we looked at the report of the Mental Health Commission.

They spent 12 months looking at the problems that we had and where some of the solutions lie. They said it was a realistic target if we put in place the right strategies.

The right strategies involve shifting some of the health resources out of where we are currently spending them and putting them into preventative health.

For example, we shouldn’t be making it more difficult for people to go and see their GPs. We’ve had a big debate over the last two years about whether we’re seeing our GP too often.

There was a report commissioned by the federal Government when they came back into power that says we were seeing the GPs too often. Well that’s not the case for men; in fact, men aren’t seeing their GPs enough.

We need to be making it easier and more attractive for our blokes to be going to see their GPs to get a regular check-up at least once a year, probably more often if you’ve got a chronic health condition.

This helps to ensure that we are nipping things in the bud and to ensure that we’re putting preventative health standards in place.

Just to finish up, I have been talking to David Helmers a lot over the last few months about some important initiatives that you guys want to roll out.

I talked about the importance about getting us men to see their doctors more often and to talk about their problems more often.

He has got an exciting initiative that he is working some plans up on, which is a further iteration of the Spanner in the Works program.

Basically, it’s a mobile clinic to take Doctors and nurses around Australia to undertake check-ups. You get it on the road and take it to places where blokes congregate, whether it’s a motor show somewhere or the races or somewhere like that.

It’s about making health check-ups more accessible, more user friendly and promoting men’s health on the road.

I think it’s a good initiative. There is a bit of work that we need to do on that, but I’d like to work with the association to see what we can do to make that a backable proposition. I think it’s got legs.

I want to work with the association and with all the Men’s Sheds around the country to ensure that you’ve got what you want.

We cannot build a viable Men’s Shed association which is addicted to government grants, whatever the flavour of the government is.

This is after all an organic movement which is community-based, providing ground-up support. That is the strength of the Men's Health movement.

Government should be providing some support to the association and the grants program I think at the moment is working very well. It does need some tweaking around the edges.

Labor is committed to continuing to support the movement, quite frankly because we get it.

This town has gone through the same thing here that the Illawarra has gone through, which many other parts of Australia have gone through.

If only in the 1980s we had sheds doing the sort of stuff that you are doing today.

It’s great to be with you. I’m not going to be able to stay too long because my leave pass is for a limited period and I’ve got to get back to Question Time.

Congratulations to the association for bringing you all together. I hope it is both an invigorating and a learning experience for all.